Our Dead Selves Lie Like Footsteps in Our Wake

Issue #121

I close my eyes and listen to the gentle beating of her heart, the rhythm of her life. I can almost feel the warmth of her blood. Intensely intimate—more even than the earlier tangle of limbs and lips—the fabric of her physicality is laid bare in her heartbeat. Like I’m part of her, I press so close that I am among the tiny, fleshy machines that move her parts and breathe her air and do all the other miraculous, incredible, completely mundane things that came together to be Adalia.

“I can see yours, you know,” she says.

I shift in her arms. “My what?”

“Your heartbeat.” She knows my thoughts, as always. Spending so long together, sharing every aspect of every moment, we have become one person. I know her feelings by the subtlest shift of her eyelids. She reads my mind from nothing but a far-off look.

I don’t question her, because I know it’s true. Adalia sees things no one else can. We are all in touch with the invisible strands of the world, but her innate understanding goes deeper than even our most talented instructors. A heartbeat—something that I would struggle and study to harness—she sees clearly as a splash of color on canvas.

In sheer ability, I would never match her, but I have a gift too. Where she sees, I understand. The formulas and symbology that our predecessors spent generations building and rebuilding are full of holes that only the best of us can fill. Three years ago, I drew a new symbol and argued for its place in the books. They said it was impossible, that no one of my age could show such ability.

They had said the same of Adalia. In both, they were wrong.

“How do you do it?” I ask her.

“I just do.” She takes a flask of powder from the nightstand and pours it out across the polished wood. With her fingers, she draws. “Do you love me, Mikale?”

“Yes.” I reach out to touch her dark curls. This is our last moment as we are now. Our time at the University is over. It’s frightening, because I can’t remember my life without her. “More than love. I am you.”

We have our share of privileges. We were born with the talent for magick. More importantly, we were born thusly to Lords recognized by the city. Common mages are a destabilizing element, they say, and must be normalized—a symbological process that often kills and leaves the lucky few irreparably damaged.

But our peers are more privileged still. I was born a cripple, and she a girl. Which of these is worse, we debate to no resolution. They say my foot is twisted, but what they mean is that it is hardly a foot. They say she has grace and empathy, but what they mean is that they would rather see a woman as a Lord’s servant than as a Councilor.

Her fingers dance in swoops and waves, cutting runes into the powder. It’s odd to see. Hands usually draw with inks or chalk. Powder and silver-tipped slippers are for simple gestures in duels, when there is no time to stoop and paint. With my warped foot, dueling is an impossibility, but I have seen her practice countless times.

She finishes with a stroke I recognize. My symbol—our newest tool in altering the threads of the world. I sit up.

“This is both of us.” Adalia laces her fingers with mine. Tomorrow, she is to leave the city as a mage-guard to a long expedition. The Council must be hoping that she never returns. She will, but it will be a year or longer. “My sight. My talent. Your symbol. Your wisdom. I always want you with me.”

Most spells alter threads. They can turn air into bursts of fiery energy or freeze water in a glass. Others destroy threads or create them. The formula on Adalia’s nightstand binds things—ties threads together.

I move our laced hands over the runes. The energy of them is thick in the air. Her symbols are beautifully precise. “You are me, Adalia, so I’m always with you,” I say. It has to be true, because a year without her is a year without myself. 

She spreads her fingers, and the runes flash with yellow light. The air crackles. I feel something like a tug in my chest, and I gasp and breathe, and then everything is still. 

I can hear her now. Faintly, in the back of my mind, her heart beats, warm and steady. And mine beats for her, I know, when I see her smile back at me.

In my sleep, the world is theoreticals. I dream of unproven equations, long-shot theories, and frightening, exciting discoveries. Between night and morning, I discover a thousand new slants on old symbols, then I fight to stay asleep. When I wake, all these things dissipate like smoke, leaving only the faintest haze behind my eyes when I finally open them.

When dreams fade, I can hear her. Her heart beats against my mind like rain against a roof. Sometimes, it is steady even drops. This morning, it’s a thunderstorm—pounding, echoing. She returned years ago, but shame kept me from writing or seeking her out—shame for what I am without her. She has never come to me, either. And because we are each other, I know that she is ashamed of who she returned as.

I grope for my cane, and my hand touches glass instead of wood. A bottle clatters. I tell everyone, myself included, that gin fights the pain in my damned, twisted foot. But it fights away doubts, too. After all, what genius discovers a new symbol as a student, then accomplishes steadily less for a decade? And it fights the cold of the Tower and the drafty halls of the Researcher’s Wing.

And it fights the thoughts of her, but it can never win. Even when she’s far away, serving as a mage-guard or advising Lords in magick dealings, she is always there. Her heartbeat hammers through the alcohol, through the pages of books in which I bury myself. What use are discoveries without her to share in them?

As her heart steadies, I find my cane. The cold of morning makes the first movements of my foot an agony. I swallow the remnant gin from the bottle on my nightstand and hobble towards the door.

The research hall is massive, with vaulted ceilings and walls lined with chalkboards, dozens of polished writing desks and bookshelves. Symmetrical corridors lead in all directions, where rooms identical to mine house my peers. A roaring fireplace struggles to keep the vast room warm, but I feel chills as soon as I step inside. Drawing my robes tighter to my body, I move to my desk and its chaos of notes and drawings and books with marked pages.

“Lord Mikale,” a familiar voice says. I feel a hand on my chair.

I don’t want to turn. I want to bow my head over the infinite writings of our library. Inside every hundredth book or so, a secret waits. Past geniuses with unpopular notions of magick inked their discoveries onto fragile pages and left them for us—for me—to raise like a torch. I want to be writing, solving, learning, and unlearning. 

But I’m obligated to glance up. Lord Erich meets my eyes. He’s a beautiful man, tall and slim. His wavy hair is bound with a ribbon, and thin spectacles rest on his straight nose. His research is unremarkable, and his skill as a duelist is almost as shameful as my own. But with a Councilor’s daughter carrying his child, Erich has earned himself a powerful father-in-law and a position with Steam and City Works.

“Lord Erich.” I’m suddenly aware that I haven’t eaten. The gin burns holes in my stomach.

“I wish I had the mind to follow your patterns.” Erich nods to my desk and smiles sardonically. “I’m joking. One can’t expect a genius to operate like your average researcher.”

“Is there such a thing? I thought only geniuses worked here.” I run my tongue over my dry lips. All I want is water and silence. “Average mages can help the Jacks solve petty crimes, and run papers for advisers.”

“When everyone is above average, that becomes the average, my friend.” He touches the green-striped brooch pinned to his robes, the mark of the City Works branch. “But enough small talk. I’m here officially, Mikale.”

“Shouldn’t you be with the engineers? This place is for self-directed researchers. If we have something for City Works, we’ll send a page.”

“Listen.” He lowers his voice and sits on a stack of books. “Everyone knows you’re one of the best, but there are whispers, Mikale.”

I clench the edge of my desk. Politics seep into everything—another poison that kills knowledge for knowledge’s sake. “Aren’t there always?”

“This is serious. Some people—I’m not a liberty to say whom—feel you are unfocused. It’s no secret that you’ve been drinking more, and your research of late hasn’t impressed the Council.”

I feel myself sinking. For the Council to speak poorly of my research threatens everything that I have. I know I’m squandering my talents, but there is nothing for me beyond the Tower. “Research takes time....”

“That doesn’t change what’s being said. There are people who want to see you removed, Mikale. They say you’re wasting resources and embarrassing the University and your fellow researchers.”

I have nothing to say. I just push the papers around my desk, trying to remember the last revelation I’d shared with the Council. There was something I’d worked on, something important from the night before, but between the alcohol and my sleeplessness, I can’t remember. I glance at my chalkboard, but it bears a hand-shaped streak of white. Did I erase my writing in a fit, or did someone maliciously wipe it away?

I know you’re better than this.” Erich stands and straightens his robes. “I want you to work for me. City Works needs more dedicated researchers, and the Council agrees that you could use direction.”

We are expecting great things from you, a Councilor had said when he welcomed me into the Researcher’s Wing. I cover my face with my hands. Adalia’s heart taps out its even rhythm, deep in my skull.

Erich puts a hand on my shoulder. “In the past, City Works has relied too heavily on engineers and not enough on mages. There are opportunities for untouched research with us. I promise you won’t be bored. And it’s a respected branch.”

The main doors fly open, banging back against the stone walls. Everyone, even the most absorbed reader, flinches and turns. A page stands in the doorway, his eyes downcast. “My apologies, Lords, but Instructor Henning is dead. Please convene this way.”

Researchers flood after the boy. I struggle to keep up as well as I can manage. Erich makes a show of friendship and keeps stride with me, though I can tell he wants desperately to bolt ahead.

In the main hall, where the countless wings of the Tower connect, gaping mages surround the Instructor’s body. Covered in burns, he lies on the floor with his arms outstretched. Powder sits in a pile at his feet. Half a rune has been slashed into the white dust.

Erich fights his way to the front. “Who did this?”

I know before they say it. Logic tells me that Henning was an incredible duelist and only the best could have beaten him so soundly. But more than that, I know because I remember her heart pounding. I know because I am her.

“Lady Adalia,” someone says, and I mouth along.

I get used to the brooch. At first, it feels like a chain. Years later, it’s an extension of my robes, weightless but always there. Lord Erich lied about the boredom of it, as most of City Works’ problems are trivial. I rarely spend an entire day in my study. But the solutions I produce are tangible, and tangibility begets recognition. 

The Councilors and Lords know me now. I receive invitations and offers that I never would have as a researcher. Magick within City Works has the potential to change the city, and everyone wants to be on the cutting edge.

City Works has even convinced the Tower to lend books to my study, so today I find myself in the main hall where Henning died. The Tower looks alien to me. When I was a researcher, I rarely left the Wing, and I haven’t been back since Erich hired me. Some of the tapestries are different now, I think. I press my cane into the carpeted walkway and start towards the library.

But then I feel her—her heartbeat, close. “Mikale?”

At the base of a stairwell, she watches me. Her dark curls are shorter and lighter in patches. She’s thicker now, more womanly. The cloth at her chest is still broochless, unaffiliated. Everyone will hire her and use her power, but no one will claim her. 

Researchers strive to be unaffiliated. In that, I have failed. But those who seek to become Councilors fight for affiliation. In that, she has failed.

“Adalia.” A part of me wants to fall into her arms, but she is hardly Adalia now. All of her tragic beauty has bled out, leaving her hard and angry. Without me to share in it, her soft side has atrophied. And I feel betrayed because she isn’t me or herself.

“So it’s true. You’re with Steam and City now.” She sighs. “I didn’t want to believe it. You have a researcher’s heart.”

“No one becomes a Councilor for research,” I say without thinking.

“You never wanted that.”

I frown. My dream of research alone died years ago. But within City Works, I’ve gained respect and contacts. I’ve climbed steadily upwards. Becoming a Councilor is a natural goal. “Things change.”

“I see that.” Her words are sharp.

“Like how you used to not be a killer,” I snap back.

“Legitimate and legal duels.” Her heart beats faster, incensed. “If any of those deaths were questionable, I would be in the dungeon. They’d love to be rid of me.” 

Her face twists, scowling. Once, she had been determined but warm and alive. Her eyes look like clockwork now, like she’s been hollowed out. 

“What happened to you?” I ask, as though I don’t know.

“Me?” Her words echo in the empty hall. “What happened to you, Mikale? I loved you, but now you’re just—”

“You killed Lord Berecht in front of his children!” I slam my cane down against the floor. “You’re beyond ambitious, Adalia. You—”

“He asked why he should bother hiring me as an adviser when he could pay an alley whore for the only thing I was worth!” Adalia’s heart bangs like gunpowder. “I challenged him. He accepted, then and there. If he would kill in front of his sons, he can die in front of his sons!”

I pull away. Her words are venom. She’s panting through her teeth, angry, near mad. But I know that it is honesty, not insanity.

“I’ve learned two things,” she continues, her arms lashing as she gestures. “One: no one is going to give me anything, even if I earn it. And two: they are too damned proud to decline a duel from me. If they stand between me and a place on the Council, I will do what I have to.”

“You’ll kill the whole Council, then?”

“If I have to! At least I remember my dream.” 

Once, I’d believed she could be the first woman on the Council of Mages. Now, I see that they’ll break her long before that. They’ve broken her already. My Adalia is in pieces, like a crystal glass tossed carelessly aside.

She strides forward and pushes a finger into my green-striped brooch. The metal backing pricks my chest. “You have no right to talk about what I’ve become. You let your research rot and then sold yourself to City Works because that was the easy way out.”

My heart catches. I’m in pieces, too. Her eyes fall—a hint of regret on her hard face. “I never learned how to be me without you,” I admit to her and myself.

Adalia covers her mouth with her hand. Her eyes begin to shine with tears, but she blinks them away. “...I’m sorry, Mikale. You—we were so much, and it seems like it’s all gone.” Her shoulders fall. Without her fury, she hangs limp, barely upright. “I hate seeing you like this. I just want to scream until you’re you again.”

I look away, shamed. “It wouldn’t help.”

“At least you can still do great things at City Works.” She touches my arm, but I move it. “It’s not ideal, but you can learn and discover and—”

“I’m sabotaging my research.” The tears are mine this time. I can hear the pain in her heart. I’ve stabbed her through the chest. “One of the Councilors wants the support of the Engineers’ Guild, so he’s asked me to see that certain projects fail. And I’m doing it.”

Her frown dimples deep into her right cheek. That’s how I know when she is truly hurt. Not upset, afraid, offended or angry, but truly, deeply hurt. I can hear it in her heartbeat, too. I wonder what she hears in mine.

Before she can speak, I turn my back and walk as quickly as I can. The Tower doors open onto rain-slick streets. Cold drops fall like tiny swords. I savor the stinging pain and drag myself, empty-handed, back to Steam and City Works.

The smooth tiled stone underfoot is so clean and shining that I can almost see myself in it. I’m glad that I can’t. The sound of my cane against the University halls should be nostalgic, but my foot is worse now. The rhythm is wrong. The wood of my cane is different, and the sound isn’t light and hollow but dense, hard. I try to use it to block out the beating of her heart.

Blue-black curtains wave over massive windows that overlook the city. In the moonlight, spires rise like mountains from the City Center, encircled by the ugly grays and rotting buildings of the Outer District. The air is silent and still.

But from the cracked door of an empty lecture hall, I can almost hear myself arguing my discoveries. Using brilliant logic and hard-earned knowledge, I twist everything that the University and the Council think we know about magick. Every word on every page is a weapon against stagnation. Every thread I bend in a new way is a shield against old bearded men who believe their knowledge is the only knowledge, when in truth they know nothing.

And on a padded bench beneath a painting of a generations-old headmaster, I almost see Adalia, hair bound with golden pins, tears shining in her dark eyes. She cries to me about the unrelenting humiliation that her instructors try to break her with. They cut her down, insult her, and when it is time to duel, they set her against a fierce young man who has injured five others before her.

She burns him because his defense is poor. Because he underestimates her. Because she underestimates herself and hurts him badly. And with her chin high and ice in her eyes, she walks from the dueling hall without a faltering step. She hasn’t the luxury of weakness. She cannot worry for him or ask after him, because it is better to be feared than mocked.

Afterwards, she cries to me alone, in the abandoned hallway beneath the judging eyes of a long-dead headmaster. And when footsteps echo from the next corner, she becomes silent, eyes dry and lips steady.

Here, now, I hear footsteps and raise my head. When I see her, I nearly lose my grip and fall. If not for the shortness of her curls, I would think myself mad, seeing ghosts of our murdered youth. 

The silver tips of her slippers click on the floor as she walks to me, arms wrapping around herself. “I knew that you’d be here,” she says, knowing me better than I know myself.

“I didn’t.” Out the window, gas lamps light the main streets in a golden glow. “I’m not sure how I got here. I just walked....”

“It’s a horrible place.” She raises her chin to meet the painting’s eyes. “I hate it, but I wish I could be here forever. I miss us.”

“We’re still here,” I say, but I don’t believe it.

Adalia lays her hand on the lecture hall door. It creaks open. “Tell me something incredible, Mikale. Like you used to.”

She leads me inside. The gas lamps flash. The rows of tables and empty chairs and the long chalkboard at the front of the room are all just as I remember them. Symbological equations cover the board, some half-erased, others underlined, all of them elementary.

“The one at the top,” I say, pointing. Slowly, I help myself towards the chalkboard. “You know it. One of our most basic concepts of alteration....”

Faintly, she smiles, and she sits atop a table at the front of the room. “I know it.”

“It’s garbage.” I seize a piece of chalk like a knife and slash through the runes. “It functions, but we don’t know why. Decades ago, a man named Instructor Jeralt penned a different series of runes that can do the same things but better, faster, and more importantly, we understand them.”

She leans back on her palms. “I didn’t know that.”

“That’s because they never teach it—because it unhinges some of the very basic concepts of magick that the University and the Council hold dear. We’ve based everything on this other cruder drawing for generations.” Wiping a space on the board with my palm, I touch the chalk to it. My hands are shaking from how hard I grip. My fingers feel clumsy, drawing in chalk again, but I scratch out Jeralt’s equation from memory. “We’ve made so much out of nothing. Just imagine what we could do if anyone was willing start over and learn it all again.”

“Understanding isn’t everything, genius,” she replies with a grin. She stands up and takes the chalk from me. Her hands are clumsy, too. Her feet, I’m sure, still draw with dangerous precision. Her linework tightens as she writes. “No one, not even you, can explain why I can do this.”

She finishes her last rune, and the symbols glow. Fire leaps from the lanterns, crawling like snakes along the floor. The flames wind up the legs of the middlemost table, converging and burning brighter. But, impossibly, they consume nothing. The wood remains polished and clean.

Adalia waves her hands like a puppeteer. She can feel the threads, I know it. The fire burns higher in places, like fingers straining for the ceiling, while others fall closer to the table. It’s all there—the City Center, the Tower, the University, and even the Outer District and the Basin, where part of the city collapsed ages ago.

I gape. Her heart patters, delighted. The fire even feels hot, but the table refuses to burn. “...how did you do that?”

“I just did,” she says with a laugh. She parts her hands. The fires vanish, leaving the smell of smoke in the air. “I just see it and make it do whatever I want.”

I glance at her with a wry smile. “All that power, yet you never fixed my foot.”

“If I could, I would. You of all people should know the limitations of magickal medicine.” She touches my chin and smiles.

I grin faintly and put my hand on her wrist. “If we adopted Jeralt’s equation, it might be possible one day.”

“I’ll leave that to you,” she whispers, and her lips brush against mine. They’re warm and familiar, soft still and beautifully pink. My eyes close.

But I stop and turn my head. Her lips fall against my cheek. I glance down. “We’re not who we were.”

Adalia shrinks, withers away from me. She flees from my words, head down as she skulks to the door. “Hasn’t this proven that we are?”

“No.” I follow her back out into the echoing halls. “This just proves that we were something else once.... We can’t just erase everything and be children again.”

She bites her lip to stop the shaking. “Why not?” Pressing her fingers against her head, she spins to face me. She’s quiet—a pained silence—then she swings her arms wildly. “If I could, I’d tear open time and push you through it! Then you could be you again, here again. And you’d take me with you, and we—”

“No, I wouldn’t,” I say. She stares at me, betrayed, her frown dimpling deep into her cheek. But I mean my words, even though they hurt her—me. “You never learned to be you without me, and if we did it all again, we’d end up right here.”

“I’d still go back if I could. Wouldn’t you?”

“Yes!” I shout, and I hate myself for it. I know it’s weak and wrong and selfish and that all roads from there lead to here, but I still would. “But it’s a ridiculous to talk about impossibilities. This is beyond theoretical.”

Adalia collapses into the cushions of the padded bench. She drops her head against the wall, dark eyes on the ceiling. Deep shadows cover the stonework, barely visible by the light from the connecting atrium. “I’m tired, Mikale. But I don’t want to sleep, because tomorrow I’ll be me again. I miss being us.”

I sit down beside her, careful of my foot, and rest my cane across my lap. Adalia’s weight leans against my shoulder. I can faintly smell her hair. Was it so long ago that we sat like this, sharing her tears over her horrible victory? The memories are so clear—of speaking, spitting resentful, hateful words about rigid old men who so willingly crushed down everything that we believed in. I struggled, then, to understand how men calling themselves mages could knowingly stunt the growth of knowledge.

And I look down at my hands and see ink stains on my fingertips from symbology I’ve written that would never work. Impossible, I’d said to Erich’s face when I presented him with a dozen broken equations—false solutions to a problem that I could have solved on the second pass.
“We can’t be who we used to be,” I say, brushing her hair from her face. Her curls are like dark velvet, soft and comfortably familiar. “But maybe we don’t have to be who we are. What would Adalia have wanted for you?”

Her eyes are ringed with exhaustion. “She wanted to prove it could be done.” Adalia wets her lips. “But I think she would have been happy to know she was making a path for other women. Like your scholars and their writings. She would have left behind something good for when this damned city was ready.”

I kiss her softly, sweetly, and then I stand. “It’s late. You need sleep.” With my hand in hers, I help her to her feet. “Wake up as someone else, if you can.”

Our fingers slip apart. I want to strain after hers, to brush fingertips again even if for one second. But I make my hand fall and turn from the ghosts of our past—our corpses that we left to rot in our footsteps. 

Tonight, we have died again and left ourselves another decade of haunting memories. The years are now nothing but failed theoretical could-have-beens, like doors slammed shut and barred forever.

I don’t sleep, but the rhythms of her heart tell me that, in time, she does. In my cramped quarters, I struggle through pages of complicated equations. My failed symbology wastes a pile of parchment, covered in flawed inks. Finally, I return to my chalkboard, a better tool for uncertain work, a tool I haven’t touched in years.

The sun is rising when I’m sure the runes are right. I draw the final symbol—my symbol—and lay my hand over the dusty board. The runes flash. The thread tugs at my chest like it will rip me open, and I cry out through my teeth. It pulls and aches, but then it—no, they unwind, like two halves of a severed whole. I feel amputated, empty, bleeding, but I make myself stand. I make myself walk, leaving yet another part of me to die on that hard wooden floor.

At Steam and City Works, Erich looks surprised to see me this early.

“When I said impossible....” I limp past him, towards my bare desk. “I meant for someone who wasn’t a genius. I’ll make it work.”

With those words, I anchor myself to my small study and my drafty, leaking quarters. The favors I’ve curried from powerful men will vanish. I will live and die at Steam and City Works. So I spread my books and my pages across my desk and hang my chalkboard on the wall. 

Silence fills my head where Adalia used to be. I wonder what’s she’s doing and where in the city she is now. For the first time, I don’t know. I can only hope that, after so long stumbling over what we left behind, leashed to the past by a heart thread, she will finally find herself, whoever that may be.

With chalk in my clumsy fingers, I draw Jeralt’s equation. From it, all of my research shall grow.


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In addition to writing, Jeff Isacksen works as a personal trainer, plays too many video games, and practices Krav Maga incessantly. His first reader is always his infinitely supportive wife and fellow writer, Lauren Liebowitz, without whom he never would have put his ideas to the page.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Winecask Bellies and Owl Wings” by Liz Coleman
“The Motor, the Mirror, the Mind” by T.F. Davenport

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Comments & Scrivenings
4 Comments on “Our Dead Selves Lie Like Footsteps in Our Wake”

4 Responses to “Our Dead Selves Lie Like Footsteps in Our Wake”

  1. Beth Cato says:

    That is beautiful and poetic. It says a great deal about maturity and being true to yourself. Very well done.

  2. Atsiko Ureni says:

    One of the best stories I’ve read here or anywhere else. It’s rare you get to see the aftermath of a tragedy.

  3. PD says:

    Enjoyed this a lot, great to see an ending that is the right, if not the easy, direction.

  4. Kate says:

    A deeply enjoyable read. Thank you, Jeff!

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